The Tide - notes in the ebb and flow of news

At its regular board meeting Friday, the state’s top environmental regulator gave the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board a brief progress report on the permits for the controversial Twin Pines titanium dioxide mine. At its closest, the proposed strip mine will be less than 3 miles from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

“Given the proposal’s proximity to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge as well as kind of the Army Corps of Engineers process that was cut short, the EPD has elected to place the draft mining land use plan out to public review and comment,” Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Rick Dunn told the board. The comment period began Jan. 19 and ends March 20, 2023.

EPD is a division of the state DNR.

The mining plan describes the proposed mining processes, along with provisions for protecting adjacent watersheds, and a description of how the land will be restored post-mining.

“In this instance, the plan must also identify impacts to adjacent natural resources and when applicable, the plan to alleviate and/or mitigate the effects of such impact,” Dunn said.

EPD’s job is to determine that the application and the supporting materials meets all statutory and regulatory requirements, Dunn said. His three-minute mining update complete, he then invited board members to ask questions about the project. Three did.

Board Member Miki Thomaston, Manager of Technical Marketing at Rayonier Advanced Materials and one of only two women on the 19-member board, asked Dunn about criticism she’d heard regarding the selection of the river gauge used in modeling the mine’s effects. A leading critic of that modeling, UGA hydrology professor C. Rhett Jackson, argues against Twin Pines’ choice in a recent memo to EPD.

Dunn responded that while the gauge on the St. Marys River was farther from the mine, its data quality was higher.

Jackson maintains that proximity is paramount.

“The data at the Macclenny (Florida) gauge (which EPD is using) are irrelevant to the question,” he wrote in a text to The Current. “We wouldn’t analyze a Mississippi River flooding problem in Minneapolis using data from Memphis.” 

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney and leader of the successful fight against DuPont’s titanium mining project in the 1990s, attended Friday’s meeting and said this line of questioning from the board was encouraging.

“We hope EPD will follow the lead of the independent scientific community that believes the gauge closest to the swamp is the correct data source and provides the most accurate assessment of the mine’s impacts,”  Marks wrote in a text.

Two board members questioned EPD’s plan to hold the public meetings online only.

“What’s the downside of giving the public an opportunity to gather in person?” asked board member Nick Ayers, managing partner of Ayers Neugebauer & Co. and former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. “We’re a state led by the governor who did a great job of allowing the congregation of people. And if I had a lot of passion about an issue, I would feel isolated if the decision maker said you can’t actually speak with me.”

Ayers’ DNR biography indicates he is “a passionate outdoorsman and is actively leading the fight nationally to stop the Pebble Mine in Alaska.”

Dunn responded that the EPD has seen greater public participation with online meetings. And he emphasized that EPD is interested in analysis not opinion.

“I’m not interested in counting how many are in favor, and how many opposed,” Dunn told the board. “This is not our role.”

The DNR board met in St. Simons, ahead of the DNR’s annual “Weekend for Wildlife,” a fundraiser for the department’s Wildlife Conservation Section held at The Cloister at Sea Island and featuring small group wildlife trips led by DNR personnel.

After the meeting, Dunn said the state is pursuing an enforcement action against Twin Pines for a failure to obtain state licensing before drilling exploratory wells. But the permitting process is moving forward.

“There’s nothing that would hinder us from going forward with the mining land use plan,” he said.

After the meeting, outgoing Board Chairman Alfred W. “Bill” Jones, III, said the DNR needs to hear from scientists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge, about the same issues Jackson has raised. Jones informally polled the board regarding a possible anti-mining resolution but failed to find a consensus.

“I don’t think anybody necessarily is supportive of the idea of mining near the Okefenokee,” he said. “But I think there are a number of people — and I get it — that are supportive of the (regulatory) process, because we’re in that process.”

The Tide brings news and observations from The Current’s staff.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...